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20 Seattle Jazz Musicians You Should Know: Rick Mandyck

Photo credit: Daniel Sheehan

Paul Rauch By

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I'm not for tailoring art to make people happy. —Rick Mandyck
The city of Seattle has a jazz history that dates back to the very beginnings of the form. It was home to the first integrated club scene in America on Jackson St in the 1920's and 1930's. It saw a young Ray Charles arrive as a teenager to escape the nightmare of Jim Crow in the south. It has produced such historical jazz icons as Quincy Jones and Ernestine Anderson. In many instances it has acted as a temporary repose for greats such as Jelly Roll Morton, Joe Venuti, the aforementioned Charles, Larry Coryell, Julian Priester and Randy Brecker, to mention but a few.

With this series of features, I will introduce you to twenty jazz musicians currently living and working in Seattle. It is not to be seen as any sort of ranking, it has no positional value in that regard. It is simply an effort to introduce the jazz world at large to the vibrance and innovative nature of the jazz scene in and around the jewel city of Seattle, Washington.

2. Rick Mandyck

In venturing into writing this series of twenty notable Seattle jazz musicians, I had developed a criteria of sorts in terms of paring the notables down to a mere twenty musicians. I wanted to feature musicians living and working in Seattle in current times. In light of the international reach of All About Jazz, I was to choose artists with an international profile, who had paid dues playing with the best players, or had written and released notable recordings that AAJ readers could access worldwide. In that sense, many fine, largely local players, were not included. On the other hand, I wanted to feature players that have impacted jazz music in Seattle significantly, historically.

Saxophonist Rick Mandyck checks but a few of these boxes. His notable recordings are in the group context, not as an individual leader. He has not toured the world extensively as a sideman, or made much of an effort at all to modernize his approach to network his craft utilizing social media. That being said, what qualifications he does have to those who have followed jazz in the Emerald City over the past forty years, are highly significant. Those qualifications do not denote institutional training-Mandyck is a product of the oral tradition that has elevated jazz music to the artistic relevance it has long achieved. What they entail is a heavenly sound that is so original as to be undeniably his. To those that have witnessed him performing with Thomas Marriott, New Stories, Scenes, John Bishop, Jeff Johnson, Paul Gabrielson and others, no explanation is needed. Along with Don Lanphere, Hadley Caliman, Hans Teuber and Mark Taylor, Mandyck sits atop the upper stratosphere of saxophonists that have graced the Seattle scene over the past half century. To add to the intrigue, his true life story in music, comes off like a real life jazz tall tale.

Mandyck arrived in Seattle in 1978, ending a vagabond period in his life upon departure from his hometown of Endicott, NY. He arrived toting a flute as his primary instrument, before beginning his saxophone adventure in his new city. His life had been a mad journey akin to the coast to coast wanderings of beat generation author Jack Kerouac. The difference was, Mandyck didn't possess the spiritual yearnings of the bodhisattva so prominent in the lore of beat poetry and prose. "I was a hobo when I was a teenager." he recalls. "I was riding trains going in between San Francisco, New York, Florida and San Diego, selling plasma across the land."

He began playing alto, and before long, was becoming acquainted with the local scene in his new city. Among them was drummer John Bishop, with whom Mandyck would play and record with many times from the 1990's until present. His affinity for the alto would transfer to the tenor, and his original voice would begin to emerge from there. He began to play a trio gig at the Old Town Ale House in the Ballard neighborhood, with Bishop and bassist Johnson. On occasion, others would drop in to play, including guitarists John Stowell and Mike Denny.

In 1997. Bishop formed the Origin Records label in partnership with fellow drummer Matt Jorgensen. Mandyck was featured on several early releases on the label, including a live recording at the Old Town featuring the trio under Bishop's name as leader. Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit (Origin, 1997) encapsulated the gig perfectly, with Mandyck weaving melodic improvised lines through the free and abstract voicings of Johnson, and the intuitive sophistication of Bishop's drum and cymbal work. His tenor voice seemed to be derived from the Coltrane idiom, while tempered by associations with several tenor giants, including Carter Jefferson. In any case, his style which at the drop of a hat could move from almost violent intensity, to long, languid tones, was beginning to form and be well received on the vibrant Seattle scene in those years.

Perhaps the finest example of Mandyck's original take on melodic improvisation in that period can be found on a release from the trio New Stories. The now iconic trio featured Bishop along with pianist Marc Seales and powerful bassist Doug Miller. Remember Why (Origin,1997) put Mandyck in familiar and comfortable territory, featuring compositions by Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, as well as originals from Seales and Miller. Mandyck's torrid runs, and deep, rich tonality was a striking match to the impressionistic artistry of the trio. His work on the record in many ways set the template of what was to come from Mandyck for jazz audiences down the road, though for a myriad of reasons, that road would end up becoming the pathway of a very long and perilous journey for the intrepid saxophonist.

In 2001, Mandyck hit the studio with Johnson and Bishop once again, this time adding guitarist Stowell to the mix. Stowell's unique and advanced sense of harmony presented new challenges for the tenorist, with Scenes (Origin, 2001) representing a more refined approach. Unfortunately, it would be the last recording on tenor for him for some twenty years, due to illness, and a variety of abdominal injuries. He appeared on alto twice in the next few years, joining trumpeter Marriott for his debut recording Individuation (Origin,2004), and a return to the trio with Bishop and Johnson for Nothing If Not Something (Origin, 2005). It would be sixteen years before he would record on saxophone again, and thirteen before he would play the instrument at all.

Remarkably, Mandyck took up guitar and excelled in that, and then turned up at Marriott's Friday night gig at the New Orleans Club as the host quartet's pianist. The rumor was that Mandyck shedded sixteen hours a day to learn jazz piano, and in six months time, was playing at a professional level. "Sixteen hours a day, no. Eight, yes," says Mandyck. "I got my keyboard in July, and that January I started a steady gig with Thomas Marriott, Phil Sparks and Matt Jorgensen, at the New Orleans Club. Every friday night, and the piano was so difficult to play, so dead. My first gig there, I lasted maybe two or three bars into my first solo, and my hands were in complete knots."

Mandyck's return to saxophone started at the iconic Belltown jazz spot, Tula's. Playing alto, Mandyck switched back and forth between his horn and piano, exhibiting his strong, penetrating tone. With each gig, his playing became stronger, and his legend to some degree began to grow. Younger players began hearing tales of Mandyck's prowess on tenor in the 1990's, something they would soon experience first hand.

"When I started playing saxophone again, I initially started playing alto. I've always had an affinity for alto, I've always been drawn to it. Charlie Parker and Sonny Simmons were very big influences on me. I guess it is just a voicing, a personal voicing thing. Tenor had just become more of a natural voicing to me. Tenor is more like speaking. I think it's just more influenced by my natural focus." he says.

Mandyck had as well been influenced by the great tenor innovators of his time, from John Coltrane to Dexter Gordon. Their sound spoke clearly to him. His voicings on alto had a lingering tenor dimension that demanded attention.

"I just wasn't happy playing it like an alto player, I was always trying to interject tenor saxophonisms and ideology into it. At some point I just said, 'You know what, you just need to get back to tenor.' I was getting ready to dump a couple hundred bucks into my alto for repair," he recalls. "I happened to be browsing Amazon, and realized I could buy a brand new piece of shit tenor saxophone for $200, the same amount of money that I was putting into the alto."

Mandyck began appearing with the Thomas Marriott Quintet on tenor, sporting his new, on the cheap, Chinese tenor. He would eventually replace it with a more suitable horn, in the meantime, it changed hands briefly in an odd, if not humorous, way.

"That old Chinese saxophone got stolen out of our storage room in our apartment building. Somebody probably tried to play it, and it's so bad, they broke back in, and gave the tenor back," he recalls jokingly.

He began to put time into playing again, and his chops rapidly returned. Mandyck was once again one of the top players in Seattle, turning in stellar performances with Marriott and others. His approach had become more refined, leading some who had witnessed his playing over time to believe they were seeing and hearing the best of him. His voicings bore the influence of his time in front of the piano keyboard, adding dimensions previously not heard from him. Some of his focused obsession with saxophone language that could best be exemplified by Coltrane's Interstellar Space (Impulse, 1974), was redirected into sounds impacted by the impressions of his audience. That connection began to matter more to him. His playing in general had a new found maturity and grace.

"I'm a lot older, hopefully a little bit wiser, more musical. I am trying to play differently than I used to. A lot of my tenor playing in the 90's was about brute force and intensity. I'm trying to interject way more musicality, control and wisdom into it, rather than just the youthful, ' I'm King Kong, I'll blow the house down.' Interstellar Space is its own vocabulary, its own thing. I just delved so deeply into that. I loved it, I lived for it. But the fact of the matter is, 0.0001% of jazz musicians have even heard it, know the vocabulary, and can play that way. When you project that out into the general populace, people have a very, very visceral negative response. There's lots of things in the tenor saxophone world that are like that, that saxophone players just love. And you know, when you're young and you're brash, you kind of wear that as a badge of honor. Interstellar Space was a brief snap, you know, a postcard in time of the life of Coltrane, and its time and its place was in 1967. I haven't lost any of my appreciation for that music, just for me personally, I've tried to go in a different direction that maybe can incorporate some of those saxophonistic things without making people cringe." he says.

Mandyck gained perspective while practicing in a very unique fashion. While living in a small apartment in the Central District of Seattle, he did not have a convenient place to practice. His past had included busking for money on the streets of Seattle surrounding the historic Pike Place Market. He began practicing on the sidewalk outside his building, seeking cover underneath the I-5 overpass on Jackson St. Ironically, it was in that locale along Jackson where the first fully integrated jazz scene evolved beginning in the 1930's, and running through the fifties. In a town flush with cash from wartime jobs in the local shipyards and at Boeing, dozens of jazz joints began to spring up along Jackson in the city's International and Central districts. Everyone from Duke to Bird, had at some point attended jam sessions down this historic corredor, and now one of the city's present day greats was honing his resurgent chops, integrated with the vibe of passerbys on the street. His new approach began to take root there.

"I think a lot of my gauge is street playing, the busking that I've done in practicing underneath the bridge. You can tell most people are not jazz fans. These are not anybody that knows anything about jazz, but the music brings smiles to their faces," he says.

Mandyck has refined his sound, his creative intent, but yet is committed to the art of the music, to the fulfillment it can render to both performer and audience. Change does not necessitate compromise. "To me, you should just play your art, and if people like it, they like it. If it's fulfilling for you that's the only thing that's right, it's a prerequisite. I'm not for tailoring art to make people happy," he states definitively.

In this very challenging year of 2020, just before the arrival of the worldwide pandemic, Mandyck made a rather triumphant return to Studio X in Seattle to record on tenor with Stowell, Johnson, and Bishop, as he had done nineteen years earlier. The three had been performing as a trio under the band name Scenes since Mandyck's estrangement from the saxophone, producing six albums on the Origin label. Mandyck's return brought the original sound of the chordless trio back, adding Stowell's spatial harmony on guitar. He contributed five of the album's eight tunes, creating a freer vehicle for the band to navigate the wide open avenues of Mandyck's compositions. Trapeze (Origin, 2020) reintroduces his powerful, yet refined tenor to the modern jazz audience on an international scale. With the dynamic duo of Johnson and Bishop as the perfect match for his eclectic stylings, Stowell traverses the scant harmonic sketches of Mandyck's tunes adding color and shape to his work.

"All of those tunes are very, very open ended. And there's a lot of room to make little bits and pieces of it their own to play their own way. I was very happy. I thought that it is kind of liberating in a way to just have those guys be themselves. It's my music, but it's so minimalist that it ends up being that they can make it their own as well," says Mandyck.

The result is a testament to many years of music and friendship between the four participants. Bishop sees the quartet as the original and most vital template for Scenes.

"Before Scenes came along and we did the first record, it was basically Rick, Jeff and I, and John (Stowell) came in for the first record. So that was the sound that we always envisioned ourselves being. We just went through 20 years of wandering off in some other directions, doing different things. I think that connection with Rick just feels like home," he says.

Mandyck's inspired, spiritually intuitive playing is as an oasis after a long arduous journey across the desert of time itself. It is said that tall tales are based on true stories. Mandyck's story has a connection with this city, this remote outpost that has harbored the creative devices of so many great artists. His story is impulsed by life experience that has unfolded unyieldingly within the city limits of Seattle. His sound is as indigenous to the town as the salt air, as the blue waters and green trees, as the tall mountain peaks and tall buildings that touch an only in Seattle blue sky.

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